You can’t really make a great work of art complete – and this forgotten Renaissance master shows why

See: Diptych Francesco Pesellino – Annunciation, about 1450 – 1455 – Francesco Pesellino

When is a masterpiece “by” an Old Master, and when is it not? Over the centuries, can a Renaissance altarpiece, say, be left unfinished on the death of its creator, be finished by someone else, sawn into pieces and reassembled, with sections recreated from scratch based on preparatory drawings , and still “belongs” to the master. ?

You may not have heard of the 15th century painter Francesco Pesellino – who is part of the National Gallery’s exhibition Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed. A pioneer of that lush, bold, quattrocento Florentine style, and an influence on famous figures such as Botticelli, Pesellino is known as “the Giorgione of Florence” – not only because of his influence on those who came after him, but also because it is. he died of plague just as his powers were beginning to peak (Pesellino was 35; the Venetian Giorgione also died in his 30s).

Like Giorgione, only a small number of works by Pesellino survive. But unlike Giorgione, what remains does not inspire great mystery. Giorgione’s portraits of nobles seem to convey the essence of the human condition to us from early modern Venice, although Pesellino was the best animal painter: his figures are magnificently posed, right down to the testicles on the horses, but them. still essentially symbols.

And although it may be difficult to authenticate Giorgione, we can at least imagine that the works attributed to him in the galleries bear the mark of some incomparable master. But it is an inescapable fact that Pesellino’s The Trinity with Saints altarpiece – the show stopper at the center of the National Gallery exhibition – was cut up and later put back together with additions by restorers, having been finished by another hand ( Pesellino’s sometime). teacher, Fra Filippo Lippi) when it was left incomplete at the time of Pesellino’s death in 1457.

It is not known for certain how long since the Trinity altar was completed when Pesellino died – but we do know that the extent to which it was completed was important at the time. The altar was commissioned in 1455 for a church in Pistoia, Tuscany, by priests with a budget of 200 florins, a considerable sum. After Pesellino’s death, his widow sued his former business partner for his reduction of wages, declaring that the altarpiece was largely finished – Lippi’s workshop, in contrast, was considered that, he was only half way there.

Quite a hand: the main panel of the Pesellino altarpiece from the 15th centuryQuite a hand: the main panel of the Pesellino altarpiece from the 15th century

Quite a hand: the main panel of the 15th century Pesellino altarpiece – National Gallery Department of Photography

Today, Jill Dunkerton, conservator of paintings at the National Gallery, tells me that we can get a good sense of the veracity of these competing claims by examining the main panel using infrared light, which which Pesellino’s underdrawing shows: we see that. the finished panel adheres closely to his plans. In contrast, the same method suggests that the panels on the predella – the base of the altar – were almost entirely made by Lippi’s workshop. In a way, both Pesellino’s widow and Lippi’s workshop were right – in fact Pesellino had almost finished the altarpiece, if by the altarpiece you mean the main panel; but from the point of view of the work as a whole, about half of it was still left to be done.

Lippi would clearly be a candidate to complete the commission after Pesellino’s death: Pesellino had been employed in Lippi’s workshop earlier in his career; they had collaborated on commissions in the past. But Pesellino was a meticulously planning “control freak” who, by this time, was working mostly alone: ​​one reason his commissions tended to proceed slowly.

Pesellino was also a very logical painter, Dunkerton tells me. And if you look closely at the main panel, you can see “ilologicalities”, or areas that are not mapped quite accurately with their usual accuracy – indicating Lippi’s involvement. For example, Christ’s hands on the cross are finely detailed, but God’s hands are small in comparison, and do not convey the weight of the cross.

Is the Trinity altarpiece a lesser work because it lacks the full Pesellino mark? When I asked Dunkerton this question, her immediate and emphatic answer was, “No!” Lippi was a “much less logical” artist than Pesellino, she says. But you really have to look for the “illogicalities” to see them – and they were both “great” painters regardless. The altarpiece is also a testament to the relationship between student and teacher that helped shape Florentine painting in this period.

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (c 1867) by ManetThe Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (c 1867) by Manet

The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (c 1867) by Manet – Heritage Images

This speaks to its historical importance. Neither Pesellino nor Raphael. The Trinity altarpiece is a great work, but from an art-historical point of view, it is less important in itself than as a transition to something else – a “wonderfully inventive and influential” work, according to Dunkerton, full of elements that shows Pesellino’s Florentine. successors would be leading. The altarpiece belongs, or mostly belongs, to the master Pesellino. But it also belongs to a particular moment in Florentine art. Perhaps a city can be an author, too.

There is a lesson here, when it comes to works left unfinished at the death of their creator. There are two broad schools of thought – at least when it comes to publishing or displaying them (one could destroy them, or let them languish in some archive). The first is that the works should be released as they are, in whatever state of fragmentation the rebirth has left them. The second is that they should be arranged, given the appearance of a whole, according to what (from the study of diary entries, for example) we can infer of the probable intentions of the artist.

In the first camp Max Brod is publishing Kafka’s incomplete novels (much against his late friend’s stated instructions, namely that Brod destroy them); and Robert Musil’s timeless modernist masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, published editions of which often include the author’s drafts, notes, and various misprints. In March 2024, an unfinished manuscript by Gabriel García Márquez – who died in 2014 – will be published as “the lost novel”, despite the author’s wish that the work never see the light of day.

Meanwhile, in the second we have Beethoven’s one-hypothetical 10th Symphony, compiled in 1988 by Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper from his study of the composer’s sketchbooks. And Jane Austen’s Sanditon, of which there are various “finished” versions (including, most recently, a three-series TV drama adaptation by Andrew Davies). Perhaps we could also count in this category volumes two and three of Marx’s Capital, which Engels completed after his death.

The first approach prioritizes fidelity to the authenticity of the artwork, and is unwilling to sacrifice it in the service of producing a recognizable “whole” work. The latter gives priority to the creation of a finished work, and is willing to risk the author’s intention to bring such a work to fruition.

An editor, or any follower, must be guided by the condition in which they find the unfinished work, as well as its original purpose. And sometimes, art for art’s sake can be beautiful even if it’s not finished. You can appreciate the imperfect charm of this 19th century portrait of an Austrian military officer. Or consider Manet’s version of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, salvaged from fragments by Degas, which now hangs in the National Gallery. But the priests of Pistoia from the 15th century would not stand for an unfinished altar. It makes sense to give an Austen romance a satisfying ending; but one would seem to miss Kafka’s point if they tried to weave a traditional whole out of The Trial. Meanwhile, Beethoven’s notes would not have been added to a symphony without major intervention.

Portrait of an Officer from the 19th century, artist unknownPortrait of an Officer from the 19th century, artist unknown

19th century Officer portrait, artist unknown – LULLO + PAMPOULIDES, London

But it is in their failure, rather than their success, to meet any preordained standard of completeness that the real value of these posthumous works lies. Whether finished, such as Pesellino’s altarpiece, or left deliberately fragmented, such works remind us (as the whole art market might pretend otherwise, in its attempt to command more obscene prices) that the product is likely to be multi -the author of any work of art, or is always open to intervention, whether from editors, restorers, translators, critics or even readers. To quote a famous philosophical puzzle, Plutarch’s “Ship of Theseus” (if all the planks are finally put in place to prevent the ship from rotting, is it still the ship of Theseus?), more than one ship writer can to be at a ship.

The meaning of the work can change: it is its appropriation, its references, its sampling and its bastardization that live art. Not only are Shakespeare’s best known for his plays, but for how they have shaped, and continue to shape, literature, popular culture and language beyond them. Or consider how painter Elías García Martínez’s pedestrian fresco Ecce Homo (1930) from a church in Borja, Spain, became internationally famous, until octogenarian parishioner and unqualified restorer Cecilia Giménez changed it to the “Monkey Christ” as he is called. ” in 2012.

Great works are not immediately and eternally great – the sole product of some transcendent being. Great works are the product of their time, in which many men of genius were at work; individuals who were his contemporaries, collaborated with, inspired or informed or imitated those we recognize as “real” people; who pushed things forward in their own way. Great works are significant because of what we can do with them: how we might build on them, or change the works, today. This is surely the whole point of “rediscovering” a painter like Pesellino. The beauty and brilliance of art lies in the promises that have not yet been fully realized.

Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed is at the National Gallery, London WC2 ( from 7 December to 10 March

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